February 02, 2012

Barramundi, known as the “sustainable seabass,” is one fish that is growing in popularity due to its low toxin levels, mild flavor and high levels of heart and brain-healthy omega-3’s. And, according to some food and nutrition forecasters, a top food trend for 2012.

Fish and shellfish are low in saturated fat and a great source of high-quality protein, essential nutrients, and omega-3 fatty acids. But a lot of consumers are confused about which fish to eat. After all, there are more than 500 different species to choose from, and there are a lot of questions about taste, cooking preparation, sustainability and food safety.

Barramundi, known as the “sustainable seabass,” is one fish that is growing in popularity due to its low toxin levels, mild flavor and high levels of heart and brain-healthy omega-3’s. And, according to some food and nutrition forecasters, a top food trend for 2012.

??Unlike salmon, which can require up to four pounds of smaller fish as feed to produce each pound of fish, barramundi can thrive on a vegetarian diet and are better at converting grains into fish protein than almost any other fish (for many species, more fish meal and fish oil is used to produce each pound of fish than comes off the farm). Also, these unique fish spawn in the ocean and mature in fresh water, endowing them with the ability to produce high levels of omega 3’s. They are naturally disease resistant, and can thrive in aquaculture environments as well.

Australis Aquaculture founder Josh Goldman raises barramundi with an eye toward a sustainable future. Goldman first played a role in pioneering land-based (a.k.a. “recirculating” or “closed containment”) aquaculture to improve the environmental performance of fish farming and was involved in introducing Americans to tilapia back in the 1980s. He focused on growing herbivorous fish like tilapia, because they don’t need fish in their diets and can have a small environmental foot print.

??However, over time a tremendous amount of compelling data emerged about the unique role of omega-3s (EPA & DHA) in human health. Goldman began to feel limited by the choice to either grow herbivorous fish with a small footprint – like tilapia – or traditional carnivorous fish, like salmon, which have a lot of omega-3s, but depend on fish-based diets, putting a lot of stress on the oceans. After spending three years studying the habits and attributes of a wide range of largely unknown fish, Goldman settled on barramundi.

“By farming species that are less reliant on fish in their feed we can make a lot of progress towards breaking this linkage between farmed and wild, and helping our oceans to return to a more natural and abundant condition. Over time, we need to learn to make smarter use of the waste products to produce feeds. This year, we will launch a pilot project to raise seaweed adjacent to our farm. We believe there is tremendous potential to use the nutrient flows of the seas to create an integrated polyculture where there is no longer such a thing as waste,” he says.

But the most sustainable fish in the world will never sell if they don’t taste great, and consumers are clearly focused on mild flavor profiles, says Goldman. That’s why barramundi, which is both mild and relatively firm – but also has moderate oil content (making it buttery and less sensitive to overcooking) – is a fish with a great combination of attributes.

Goldman raises barramundi both indoors (in Massachusetts), and in the sea waters of Central Vietnam. At the Vietnam facility, nutrients are assimilated through the natural biological capacity of the bay, which is clean and non-polluted. Fish are hatched and nursed in land-based recirculating tanks, and then grown in modern sea cages.

On the indoor farm, which is one of the largest water re-use facilities in the world, 99% of the water is recycled and purified, and fish waste is donated to local farmers for fertilizer. Additionally, Australis fish are fed an all-natural diet, so they have no detectable mercury.

From a market perspective, the west generally under-consumes fish. For example, in the U.S. just 7% of our animal protein comes from seafood, compared to more than 25% in Asia. Failing to build supply for aquaculture products that are far more efficient to produce in terms of food conversion, says Goldman, results in moving more slowly than we could toward a more robust and sustainable food system.

Results from a recent Lempert Report consumer panel found that just under half of consumers (46 percent) have increased the amount of fish in their diet in the past year; 39 percent say the amount of fish they eat has stayed the same. Those who answered yes to eating more fish in the past year have done so because “it’s healthy” (20 percent), they “love the taste” (12 percent), they are “eating less meat protein and switching to fish” (18 percent), or they want to increase their “omega” intake (10 percent).

The World Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have urged governments to improve their efforts emphasizing the benefits of eating seafood – specifically for brain and heart health. Recent studies have also suggested that regular consumption of fish, baked or broiled, reduces the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Goldman would like to see retailers be more creative and out front about promoting seafood. For example, better education of the trusted seafood counter staff (so that they can educate consumers), greater use of in-house dietitians, and using social media are all significant opportunities. Unfortunately though, because of the nature of the media, he says, consumers hear a lot more about risks than they do about benefits – and as a result many have reached ill-founded conclusions about seafood.

?“Perhaps the greatest impact can come from a market innovation which brings more convenient, sustainably-produced seafood products in ready-to-eat formats to the consumer,” Goldman adds.